Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books

This website, dedicated to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), consists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages on Freire. The website was created by Daniel Schugurensky, Arizona State University.

Freire, Paulo (1970). Cultural Action For Freedom. Harvard Educational Review and Center for the Study of Development and Social Change: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Review by Tamara Oyola (UCLA)

Cultural Action for Freedom serves as a primer for those of us exploring or new to the world of adult education, non-formal education and the process of concientizacion (critical consciousness). Published in English in 1970, this book presents the ideas of culture of silence, denunciation--annunciation, adult literacy as a process of empowerment and education as cultural action for freedom. The present book review is organized around themes, definitions and a practical illustration Freire himself wrote as an example of an adult literacy process utilizing reflection and action. Interspersed with these conceptualizations will be critical reflections by this book reviewer; this is necessarily so considering 30 years have almost passed since this book's publication and not only has the world changed, but Freire throughout his lifetime adapted and revised the ideas presented in Cultural Action for Freedom. One of the most clear differences is Freire's changes regarding language; his consistent use of 'man/men' was revised in subsequent works to humans thus including women in his description of the education process.

Perhaps Freire's early use of male orientation in language is part of his cultural upbringing; in Portuguese the masculine form is utilized to refer to the plural. Language as a fundamental dimension of heritage is important for Freire's point of reference is Brazil and consequently, the Third World. This matrix, in crude terms -- Freire's cultural baggage -- is critical for he sees the fundamental theme of the Third World as "the conquest of its right to a voice, of the right to pronounce its word . . . the right to be itself, to assume direction of its own destiny, only the Third World itself will create the currently non-existent conditions for those who today silence it to enter into dialogue with it. (p. 4) " Through interactions with the First World, including his years teaching in the U.S., and in response to letters of women from developed countries, Freire incorporated gender-neutral terminology so as to connect liberation and inclusive language. The First World then is not alienated or removed from Freire's pedagogy. In fact, he states that "we have never rejected positive contributions from men of the Third World or of the director societies", rather, ideas should be processed through sociological reduction so as to ascertain their cultural and ontological validity (p.4). Thus, concepts like words must be rooted in the social framework in which the learners exist; critical analysis occurs in education as cultural action for freedom because methodology, language and ideas are not dissociated from the learners' existential experience. In addition, adult literacy and education in general are instrumental in the voice acquisition of people around the globe. In the Foreword of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull notes that Freire's educational philosophy is important for both developing and developed countries, that the struggle to become subjects and to participate in the transformation of society is substantive for people of color and middle class persons in the United States of America (U.S.) as well (p. 11).

The terminology Freire utilizes to describe the differing realities of countries and communities suggests North-South/West-East patterns of economic, political, social and cultural dominance. Freire frames the Third World as the place where there are oppressed peoples and where this oppression has led/created/enabled/structured a culture of silence. There is a relationship between the metropolitan and the dependent societies so that although each society is a totality in itself, they are also part of a larger matrix structured by economic, historical, cultural, and political contexts (p. 33). The quality of the interaction is instrumental for it is grounded in power differentials. For example, Freire describes the culture of silence as colonial in nature where the metropolis/dominant/director and dominated/alienated/object societies are in an oppressive relationship with a two-fold pattern of development:

On the one hand, the culturally alienated society as a whole is dependent on the society which oppresses it and whose economic and cultural interests it serves. At the same time, within the alienated society itself, a regime of oppression is imposed upon the masses by the power elites which in certain cases are the same as the external elites and in others are the external transformed by a kind of metastasis into domestic power groups. (pp.2-3)

Thus, the patterns of dominance and subjugation are replicated internally; not only does the metropolis prescribe the word, but the masses are silenced. There is a "reproduction of dominator/dominated within the colonized as well. As Freire states, " [the object society's] power elites, silent in the face of the metropolis, silence their own people in turn. (p. 34) " Both of these interrelationships -- between the societies and within a society -- are grounded in an assumption of homogeneity which is problematic. What constitutes the Third World? First World? Are all patterns of dominance equal? If not, how they differ may be relevant to exercises in the liberation of such societies; for example, violence patterns, gender roles, and colonization history may all be variables critical in the adaptation and adoption of the process of education as cultural action for freedom. In addition, although rooted in economic and historical conditions, the term 'Third World' is problematic for it suggests identification in opposition to industrialized countries. What are alternate forms of self-image and definition a society can choose? The implication here is that Freire's concepts and methodology may, in fact, need to undergo sociological reduction; if and how a country/society/community chooses to utilize Freire's pedagogy must also be critically analyzed from the cultural, sociological, economic and political specific realities.

Cultural Action for Freedom is divided into two parts, the first one discusses the adult literacy process as cultural action for freedom and the second is a discussion on cultural action and conscientization. The latter is an elaboration on the political processes that have shaped Latin America and the Third World including a philosophical discussion on levels of consciousness and cultural revolution. The editor notes that "conscientization refers to the process in which men, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the socio-cultural reality which shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality. (p. 27)" Thus, the second part of this book serves as a framework for part one, the proposed literacy process as a practice of liberation. This process is one that directly challenges the culture of silence. Concordant with the status quo of muted masses has been what Freire calls the digestive concept of knowledge (also referred to by Freire as banking in Pedagogy of the Oppressed). In this approach, the illiterate person is empty, in need of substance; humans are the object of the process of literacy, passive and vacant of consciousness. Alternatively, the adult literacy process Freire espouses sees humans as subjects in the process of learning. The subject, in fact, is not just learning to read and write but reflects consciously on his/her culture and in turn, acts positively upon this reflection. This is an act of knowing where the educator and learner must enter a dialogue as equals. The assumption is that although the educator is a directive partner in the sense that he/she decides the words to study and is a facilitator in the learning process, the educator is equal to the learner. Practically though, a tension may arise between horizontality and directiveness. Freire presents two images of educators -- those that prescribe and ascribe to the process of education as one where they are in control and treat the learners as marginal to society and the other where the educator assumes the role of one of the subjects and "true dialogue unites subjects together in the cognition of a knowable object which mediates between them. (p. 12)." They are both knowing for they are both concrete individuals (pp. 12-15). Alternatively, the range of educational possibilities where personality, motivations and subject matter are variables to consider suggests that there might be more than just two roles for an educator to assume. If the educator can be conscious of his/her assumptions and actively promotes an environment of equals, has he/she balanced directiveness and horizontality? Perhaps, but the recognition and integration of the learner's reality is a starting point. The underlying implication that the learner must be considered part of the society and the educational process is a strength in Freire's pedagogy. The danger of omitting the foundation of learner as subject could be considered with the following question: What happens when school systems, governments and Ministries of Education incorporate Freire's tools without the foundations of critical consciousness? The result could be a loss of the power of the method; the status quo education of the nutritionist/digestive/banking concept of knowledge where humans continue to be marginal and silent would still present.

Paulo Freire does assist the reader with a practical application of his methodology in the Appendix of Cultural Action for Freedom (pp. 53-55). He illustrates the act of knowing via the use of the generative word favela (slum/shantytown in Portuguese). The tension between directiveness and horizontality is salient in the first step -- the choosing of such a word -- because it is the educator who decides upon this term based on research of the community's linguistic universe. This word will serve as a primer for future word development by the learners, but the subjective lens of the educator must still be acknowledged. He/she decides on the word based on the pragmatic (culturally appropriate) and phonetic complexity. In addition, based on Freire's work, a predetermination of the word as tri-syllabic is recommended. Thus, a tension also arises between Freire's methodology and the application of his work. There are dangers in presenting concrete examples of how the adult literacy process should be; in fact, the strengths of this book rest in great part in that Freire is able to convey the theoretical and the pragmatic dimensions of what he describes as "education . . . as cultural action for freedom and therefore an act of knowing and not of memorization. (p. 1)" The application of this pedagogy is colored by Freire's own experiences and if and how it will be applied will be subject to further filters. This is not necessarily positive nor negative, but rather a necessity if we are to follow Freire's own suggestion of scrutiny and ontological relevance.

The second step in Freire's methodology of the adult literacy process as an act of knowing is codification. Key in this level is the 'ad-miration' of the learners' reality. That is, in order to reflect, a process of objectification must occur so that distance is gained for abstraction. Freire states that "codification functions as the knowable object mediating between the knowing subjects -- the educator and the learners -- in the act of knowing they achieve dialogue. (p. 53)" But once again, tension between directiveness and horizontality arises because the illustration projected via a slide, drawing or other visual aid, is chosen by the educator based on his/her image of what the generative word looks like.

Embedded in codification and decodification, the third step in the adult literacy process as an act of knowing, are both the real/concrete context and the theoretical context. In the real dimension, for example, the image of the favela serves as a discussion frame; it is the concrete context of slum reality. The learners name and describe it superficially with regards to the favela's every-day apparatus (e.g. what life is like and who lives there). The theoretical context refers to reflection. It occurs in the discussion group, grupo de estudio, or classroom setting. While the concrete text names the word, the theoretical context engages the participants in the why -- what is the reason for the slum reality? The movement across the contexts of concrete and theoretical is actually circular for the subjects will explore and reexplore (ad-miration to re-ad-miration) their realities in this learning process. Freire writes that "it implies a movement from the concrete context which provides objective facts, to the theoretical context where these facts are analyzed in depth, and back to to the concrete context where men experiment with new forms of praxis. (p. 17)" In this approach, critical analysis leads to denunciation where a dehumanizing reality is recognized and analyzed, and annunciation where new forms of transformation are formulated (praxis). Thus, decodification, is a multi-dimensional step where there is breaking down of the knowable object for critical analysis (reflection) and future action upon this reflection.

Freire describes the practical stages of decodification as follows (pp. 53-55): (1) the breaking down of the codified image (e.g. a slide of a favela) via analysis of the living conditions; (2) the semantic relationship between the generative word and what it represents is established; (3) a second slide is projected where only the word FAVELA appears; (4) the generative word is separated into syllables (FA-VE-LA), and subsequently, the family of the first syllable is shown (FA, FE, FI, FO, FU). After analysis of this first family with regards to sounds and structure, each syllable of the word favela will be familiarized. Throughout this process the educator asks the learners questions of creation (e.g. "Do you think we can create something with these pieces?"; p. 54). The incorporation of the word 'pieces' instead of syllables, the use of 'we' instead of 'you' and the formulation of questions so that all subsequent words are generated by the learners suggests an attempt to democratize the learning process (learners as subjects) and where speaking the word is simultaneous with transforming reality. Therefore, the act of knowing, as proposed by Freire, incorporates denunciation--annunciation in a dialectical movement of reflection--action. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve critical consciousness.

Consciousness, as the different levels at which a human can exist and explore his/her world, is integral in Freire's pedagogy; it differentiates animals from humans and situates humans as "beings who exist in and with the world. (p. 27)" Silence, for example, can be challenged in the adult literacy process as cultural action for freedom because humans can reflect and act to transform such reality. The culture of silence permeates all aspects of life and thus, critical consciousness is an intellectual effort and praxis, the union of action and reflection, which struggles to change the status quo of suppression/oppression. In conscientization, silence is no longer seen as an unalterable reality, but the result of economic, social and historical conditioning (pp. 32-34). This critical consciousness is attained simultaneously with the literacy process and in turn, leads to cultural action for freedom. However, there are two types of cultural action -- for freedom and for domination. The former implies communion between leaders and people, it is characterized by dialogue and its purpose is to conscientize people in order to enter denunciation and annunciation. In opposition, is cultural action for the Right which is opposed to authentic dialogue and whose goal is to domesticate people (pp. 44-47). Only cultural action for freedom can lead to cultural revolution where freedom is the goal and takes place with the revolutionary regime. Freire presents two examples of persons who have been in true communion with the masses, Camilo Torres and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. The choice of two males within a sociological and revolutionary frame has implications: Are they representative of women, indigenous peoples, different political interests and ideologies? Who decides and which criteria should be utilized to define true leadership? These questions lead to a direct application of Freire's sociological reduction: the ideas here proposed should also undergo such scrutiny.

In conclusion, in a recent discussion on the paradigms which encompass public health, it was observed that hybridization is a characteristic of that field; that is, theories and methodology are transplanted, adapted and utilized as needed from a diversity of realms including education, sociology, and anthropology. Similarly, when discussions of Freire's contributions to academia are framed, the general application of his pedagogy must be noted -- education as cultural action for freedom is critical in not only adult literacy, but health promotion, occupational safety, and K-12 curriculum as well. Thus, Freire's contributions extend beyond the field of education. In addition, Freire's books could be considered a hybrid of sorts; this is exemplified in Cultural Action for Freedom where he integrates works by Plato and Socrates, agrarian reform, images of Camilo Torres and Ernesto Guevara, Noam Chomsky's writings on linguistics, Marxism, and liberation theology among others. However, this reader found the process to be a cautious and analytical one based on the density of ideas presented. The question then arises of who is Freire's intended reader population? Cultural Action for Freedom, as well as his other' works, have been read by a spectrum of persons from diverse multicultural backgrounds and interests illustrating the popularity of his pedagogy. In fact, the application of Freire's work across target groups and fields is due in part to the combination of both methodology and theory; he is able to communicate both the concepts and the pragmatic value. Lastly, the evolutionary nature of Freire's writing must be noted; for example, this book presents concepts such as nutritive education which Freire will later reframe and expand as banking education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and extension in Extension or Communication?. Cultural Action for Freedom is one of his initial works which serves as an introduction to Paulo Freire's pedagogy as a practice of social transformation.



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